Fifteen-year-old Jeffrey Watkins has found his niche at Renaissance High School.
It is a different dynamic here. It is OK to be nerdy, to be geeky, he joked. Last year, students sold nerd pride bracelets.
Then Watkins turned serious: Renaissance is something that really grows on you, he said proudly.
Meridian School District started the four-year college-prep high school four years ago. About 670 kids are enrolled. At the start of their junior year, students choose one of two tracks: an International Baccalaureate diploma or an associate degree in liberal arts.
The school graduated its first IB class in May; this spring, it will graduate the first class with a concurrent-credit associate degree through Idaho State University.
Watkins, enrolled in the IB program, is making the rigorous program even more so: He plans to complete the four-year program in three years because he is eager to use his IB degree to get to college and study abroad.
Switzerland is my goal, he said.
The IB program is well known as the gold standard in education internationally, said Renaissance English teacher Malcolm Collie.
So when we are preparing students for the IB program, we are preparing them to the same exams and the same qualifications as the best students in Australia, the best students in Finland, the best students in the United Kingdom, Collie said. Thats an outside standard set by examiners in different parts of the world, so we know there is a very high-level benchmark.
The International Baccalaureate program expects students to show mastery in such subjects as math, history, science, language arts and foreign language. Renaissance offers three foreign languages: Arabic, Chinese and Spanish.
AROUND THE WORLD
The program, which began in 1968, is found in 3,473 schools in 144 countries. In Idaho, two public schools and one private school offer an IB diploma: Renaissance and North Star Charter School in Meridian and Riverstone International School in Boise. The IB program was cut this year at two North Idaho public schools for financial and other reasons.
Each of Renaissances four grades has a maximum of 210 students, chosen by lottery with preference given to Meridian district students.
The only entrance requirement is a proficient score on the math, reading and language ISAT. The additional cost for the IB program is about $700 in fees for senior final exams.
For the associate degree program, credits are $65 each, a big savings from $136 per credit at College of Western Idaho and $252 per credit at Boise State. Completing the two-year associate degree costs students about $4,000.
I FELT CHALLENGED
Marlee Peterson and Andy Killingsworth are 17-year-old seniors in Renaissances IB program.
Inspired by the experience, they want to pursue teaching careers.
What I like about this school is I have gained this love of learning, and I want to be able to share this love of learning with other students, and thats why I want to be a teacher, Peterson said.
Peterson decided to go to Renaissance because she wanted something different from a traditional, large high school. We are like a family. Everybody knows everybody. I can name every single person in my senior class. Thats so nice, she said.
Killingsworth decided on Renaissance after his parents gave him an ultimatum Renaissance or private school. He did not like the idea of a private school.
I was not a particularly good student in middle school. I came here and right off the bat, with the teachers, it is not about the what. It is not about the how. It is about the why. I feel like I really belong here because it is about that idea of why, he said.
For the first time, I felt challenged.
We believe in forcing the kids to think, said Principal Penny Andrew.
WE ALL WANTTO BE HERE
All IB students are required to take two semesters of theory of knowledge, Andrew said.
The idea is to tie together areas of knowledge (such as natural and human sciences, history, the arts, ethics or mathematics) with ways of knowing (perception, language, reason or emotion).
In doing so, students learn through lenses that are culturally and disciplinarily diverse.
Graduating from the associate degree program, students can enter the work force with a two-year liberal arts degree or enter college with a big chunk of credits out of the way.
Lindsey Walker, 17, and Nicole Mohr, 18, are seniors graduating in May with associate degrees. Both also have been taking college courses at CWI in the summer and after school.
Walker knew she wanted to be well prepared when she got to college. She had heard from too many students who were surprised at the college workload and the writing and reading requirements.
I am prepared for college, she said.
Mohr, too, will attend college after graduating. I will already have a lot of my credits done, she said.
Another advantage: Students get to work more closely with their teachers because they often have the same teacher all four years.
You actually get to form a connection with the teacher. You dont just have the teacher for a semester and then never see them again, she said.
Mohr chose Renaissance because she wanted to go to a school where I would learn at a higher pace.
She also wanted to be among like-minded students.
Middle school was stressful because some students didnt want to be there. They didnt want to do the work. Here, it is a community. We all put in the work. We all want to be here.
A TOUGH PROGRAM
While the students and Andrew spoke enthusiastically about Renaissance, they cautioned that it is not an elitist school. Between 25 and 30 percent of students qualify for reduced lunch program an economic indicator frequently tied to fewer social and educational advantages.
It is a great environment, but it is not the best environment for everyone. It is not better or worse (than traditional high schools), it is just different, Mohr said.
Andrew agreed. We are not a fit for all kids, she said. I dont try to sugarcoat it. It is a tough program.
And not just tough. Because it is a small, academically focused school, it does not offer many of the activities, sports teams or social experiences a traditional high school does.
Even the principal said she would prefer having the traditional high school experience. Thats the beauty of Renaissance it is another education choice, like the professional technology program or other alternative programs.
You are never going to have a homecoming football game or pep rallies, Killingsworth said. I think it is a valid reason to leave if you want that type of high school experience.
Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell